Robot Sprinters and Virtual Reality: Sci-Fi Writers Predict the Future of the Olympics

It’s a global event occurring every two years in which athletes stretch the limits of the human body. A mythical torch representing the fire that Prometheus stole from Zeus is carried around the world, and the opening ceremonies feature all manner of costumes and spectacle unique to the nations represented. The Olympics already sound like something out of science fiction and fantasy, so it makes sense that seven sci-fi writers would comment on the Games, especially in regards to their current infrastructure and ethical issues as well as their future. The Huffington Post asked a number of authors—including Tor’s own Madeline Ashby, Malka Older, Max Gladstone, S.B. Divya, and Ada Palmer—to dream up ways that the Olympics might evolve, in a world being changed by everything from the climate to technology to gender identity.

Malka Older (Infomocracy) envisions a future in which countries don’t have to bankrupt themselves building stadiums and housing that won’t have any use once the Games are over:

[L]et’s imagine a smaller glimmer of hope, an alternative event, the Sustainable Olympics. We could give them a name, for a place first that opts out of expensive stadiums, traffic congestion, and exploitation: the Jakartics? The Talinnics? The Reykjaviks?

In any case, these Games would be held without any new construction, without packed sunbaked parking lots or rushed and unsafe facilities or dead workers. They would be broadcast to anyone who wanted to watch them, and without any sob story backgrounds beyond what the athletes themselves chose to tell. They would be low-key, low-maintenance, low-carbon, and yet the stakes would still be high: to be named the best in the world.

Madeline Ashby (Company Town) points out that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) must “both quash corruption and make room for change” to allow for greater diversity. Ada Palmer (Too Like the Lightning) sees athletes being judged based on size and aptitude, instead of segregated in events based on gender:

One big change I think the Olympics will have to face in the next century is how to handle gender segregation in sports. Even here in the early 21st century, binary gender categories are already breaking down. I imagine an Olympics where each event handles gender differently. In events where it makes little difference―like riflery or chess―everyone would compete together. Events where size or weight offer major advantages would offer “open” division where anyone could participate, but also events segregated by height or weight, much like boxing today. The smaller classes would have mainly female participants, the larger mainly male, but sex wouldn’t be the divider, the secondary characteristics―height, reach, stride, shoulder width―would be.

A major theme is human enhancement, from corporations sponsoring athletes with customized DNA to robots that can run the hundred-meter dash in a second. Ashby says:

Still, people do love sport. They love competition. They love displays of strength―both physical strength, and the strength of will necessary to become an (honest) Olympic competitor. That’s why I think that over time, we’ll start to see more movements like the Nemean Games Revival, which is less about brands and more about, well, games. And I think we’ll see a diversity of available games: games for augmented humans, games for different types of bodies, games that recognize gender is fluid. If the IOC wants to live up to its ideals, it will have to both quash corruption and make room for change.

Runtime author S.B. Divya, perhaps the most familiar with the concept of cyborg athletes, instead considers the audiences of future Olympics and how to keep them engaged through virtual reality equipment worn by the competitors:

Meanwhile, the world is moving into increased interactivity―3D video, virtual reality headsets, always-on celebrities. This thirst for shared life experience will only grow. The Olympic Games are a brilliant way to showcase the drama of a life spent trying to reach the pinnacle of performance. People devour that kind of story, but tomorrow’s audience is growing ever more sophisticated. They can smell an edited, curated story from a mile away, and they don’t like it. What they want―even today―is the raw, personal perspective of each individual athlete. Instant access, no filters.

But even if we can have the CyborGames and eventual RetrOlympic Reboot (hat-tip to Dissension author Stacey Berg), will we want it? Max Gladstone (Four Roads Cross) makes the argument, in the form of “the hipster’s dilemma,” that appreciation of the triumphs of the human form will never entirely go away:

The discussion has already started. Athletes can use some drugs, like caffeine, but not others, like their own blood. No to artificial legs that let sprinters run faster, yes to bathing suits that make a swimmer’s body more sleek. With each new development, we settle on what makes an “authentic” athlete. Someday a human mind in a robot body will run the hundred meter dash in a second. But, for a long time, we’ll believe that doesn’t count.

Sports will face the hipster’s dilemma. Vinyl is heavy and fragile. A record larger than an iPad stores four songs on a side. But people buy records, and care for them, and value the “authentic” hiss and pop.

If we survive, someday our children’s children, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, will gather to watch, with metal eyes, a bunch of fierce kids made from meat and bone race the four hundred-meter hurdles.

And here’s a neat visual: Could the five Olympic rings someday expand to include the Moon or Mars? Read all of the alternate-universe Olympic futures.

Photo: 105-106 Capital FM


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